Maybe your most recent memory of Mikaela Shiffrin is February’s Olympics, where she failed to finish her three best events and had a top individual result of ninth place. Maybe your most recent memory is her rebound last March, winning the World Cup Finals downhill and a fourth overall season title.
Or maybe it’s what happened last weekend. For the first time in her career, now in its 12th season, Shiffrin won the first two races of a season — back-to-back slaloms in Levi, Finland. They were her 75th and 76th World Cup victories, moving closer to the only skiers with more — Lindsey Vonn (82) and Ingemar Stenmark (86).
The pursuit of those legends is a major storyline for the forseeable future, but is still far off as the women’s World Cup visits the U.S. this weekend for the only time this season. Killington, Vermont, hosts a giant slalom on Saturday and a slalom on Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET each day, NBC and Peacock).
What’s current is that Shiffrin is back on top in her trademark event after finishing last season with her worst string of slalom results since her rookie season (a DNF at the Olympics, then ninth- and eighth-place finishes in the last two World Cup slaloms).
Shiffrin stresses before every fall that she doesn’t know where she stacks up until everybody starts racing. The preseason prep period can last months and include training on three continents. So much can change for every elite skier from year to year, yet somehow Shiffrin has managed to win at least two races in 11 consecutive seasons (tying a record).
What’s different about this year? Flying. A lack of it.
Shiffrin decided to stay in Europe rather than go back home to Colorado after the Oct. 22 season-opening giant slalom in Soelden, Austria was canceled due to rain and snowfall. It’s the second time in her career — and first time in many years — that Shiffrin didn’t cross the Atlantic between Soelden and Levi, races always separated by three or four weeks.
“Not try and battle the jet lag so many times in a row,” she reasoned.
So she arrived in Levi — 110 miles inside the Arctic Circle — earlier than usual. It paid off with those wins over fields that included Slovakian Petra Vlhova, who last season not only won the Olympic slalom, but also the season-long World Cup slalom discipline title to firmly supplant Shiffrin as the world’s best in the event after a years-long rivalry.
“The last years I’ve been really chasing and trying to get back and trying to just kind of stay with it,” Shiffrin said after Sunday’s victory, which included what she called maybe her best run ever in Levi, where she owns six victories. “I’ve won some races, but it’s always like, oh, I was just lucky to be here now. This is a little different this year. I’ve been working very hard, my whole team, over the summer to try to get my highest level a little bit higher. I think these races showed that it’s there.”
There are other factors. Shiffrin said her back is healthy after it curtailed training at the start of the last two seasons. She has two new ski technicians. Who knows how things have changed for Vlhova after dethroning Shiffrin and winning Olympic gold.
Now Shiffrin heads to Killington, where she has finishes of second, third, fourth and fifth in giant slaloms. She has won all five World Cup slaloms held there. If she makes it six in a row, it will be her 50th career World Cup slalom victory and another sign that last season is truly in the past.
By otherwise staying in Europe through this fall and winter, it’ll be the closest she feels to being at home.
“This expectation just builds and builds, and I think I’ll feel some pressure,” in Killington, she said on ORF in Levi on Sunday. “When you win, that actually only gets harder.”
OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!Follow @nbcolympictalk